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The Lost Torah Mantle

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser

The dramatic retrieval of a long-lost family heirloom.

Ann had been born and raised in Pennsylvania. When she married, she moved to San Francisco, and had not returned to the East for more than two decades. So her visit to New York City was exciting. Her sister and brother-in-law, with whom she was staying, were anxious to show her around town and she enjoyed doing the conventional tourist-type things that most visitors to the city do.

On her last Sunday in New York, she ventured alone to the Lower East Side, to do some shopping. It seemed to Ann as if nothing had changed on Delancey Street. The tenements were still the same run-down, seedy buildings they were 20 years ago. The sidewalk vendors still hawked their wares loudly and abrasively. The shop owners still expected a good haggle over the price, and the crowds of shoppers, eager for a bargain, were thick as ever.

The Torah mantle in the window caught her eye and she rushed into the shop.

Ann turned down a small side street to get some relief from being jostled by the throng, and as she walked along, she glanced idly into the store windows. She had almost passed a small Judaica shop when something in the window caught her eye. She came to an abrupt halt, then went closer to take a better look. There on display was a beautiful Torah mantle. It was made of maroon velvet and had a silver menorah embroidered on the front. There were also some Hebrew words embroidered in thin silver threads under the menorah, which because of Ann's lack of Hebrew education, she was unable to read.

She rushed into the shop and began questioning the clerk. Did the Torah mantle in the window once belong to someone? Where did it come from? How old was it? Was it for sale?

The clerk reacted defensively to Ann's questions. What concern was it of hers where the mantle had come from? No, it was definitely not for sale. Was she interested in buying something else? If not, then would she please leave. The salesclerk practically pushed Ann out of the store.

That evening, Ann, who was a close friend of my mother, telephoned me and related the whole bizarre incident. I listened, but could not understand why the Torah mantle was so important to her until I heard her story.

"It was almost at the end of World War II. My brother Nochum had just turned 18, and my parents lived in dread that he would be called up. There was the draft then, you know. They took any and every able-bodied man. My brother was a very gentle and sensitive boy. He didn't even know how to raise his voice. He was the apple of my father's eye and my parents' only son. I remember how my mother checked the mail every day, terrified that there would be a draft notice.

Finally one day it came. After that, it wasn't long before we were all standing – my parents, my sister, and I – on the pier in New York harbor, watching his ship sail for Europe. We cried as we waved goodbye, and I'll never forget how small he looked, standing at the railing, smiling bravely as he waved back with one hand, while his other hand clutched his tefillin bag.

Then the telegram came: 'The U.S. government regrets to inform you that your son...'

"After that we woke up every morning anxiously wondering how he was. One Thursday, only a few months after he had left, we stopped wondering. The telegram came in the afternoon: 'The United States government regrets to inform you that your son...'

"It was a big blow to my parents. They never really got over it. His loss was bad enough, but what made it almost impossible for them was the fact that they had nothing left to remember him by. All his things, including his tefillin, had been destroyed by the bomb that took his life. My parents were devastated.

"A few months after he died, they ordered a Torah mantle made for our community shul and had it inscribed with my brother's name. At least then they would have something that was Nochum's – something they could touch which belonged to him and would be a tangible reminder that once there was a boy – Nochum Jacobs. My parents have long since passed away, but I remember how much that Torah mantle meant to them. I remember how my father cried every time he kissed it.

"My sister and I married and moved away and I haven't seen the mantle in 25 years. I don't know how it came to be in that shop window, Rabbi. I could not read the Hebrew lettering, so I'm not even sure it was our mantle. But please go down there and see if it's the one that belonged to our family. No matter what the price, we'll pay it. If it's ours, please get it back for us."

I agreed to investigate the origin of the mantle. I wrote down her brother's and father's full Hebrew names, and then reassured Ann that if it would be within my power to do so, would retrieve her family's cherished heirloom.

Holocaust Ruins

A heavy snow fell the next morning, and it was very cold as I made my way down that evening to the Lower East Side. I found the Judaica store very easily with Ann's directions, but when I looked in the window, my expectation of quickly resolving the matter was diminished. In the window there was a display of a few popular children's books, some cassette tapes, and an array of lucite and enamel mezuzah cases, but no Torah mantle.

I went into the store, and the saleswoman came over to ask if she could be of any help. I explained that I had come to inquire about the Torah mantle that had been in the window the day before. The woman began to fidget and answered evasively, "I'm not sure which one you're talking about."

Then two men who looked like father and son came out of the back room, which appeared to be an office, and asked me what my interest in the Torah mantle was. I told them it was very important that I see it. My request must have seemed innocuous, because the men led me to the back room. One of them walked away, and the other – the older man who appeared to be the store owner – sat down behind his desk and motioned for me to have a seat.

I introduced myself, and then, as succinctly as possible, told Ann's story. When I finished, I was surprised to see the man put his face into his hands and begin to cry softly. After a few minutes, he composed himself, went out of the office, and came back carrying a large folded piece of maroon velvet. Silently, he handed it to me. I unfolded it and read the delicate Hebrew writing. My heart leaped. It was the same name Ann had given me.

I told the man it was indeed the mantle I was looking for. But before I had a chance to ask him to sell it to me, he answered, "After I acquired the mantle, I began to suspect that it might have been stolen. That's why my saleswoman was reluctant to give you any information about it. We displayed it in the window only as a sample, never thinking anyone would actually inquire about it per se.

One day, without warning, the tanks came in and destroyed everything.

"Now I must tell you my story. I was born in a little town in Galicia called Yaroslov. It was a beautiful life we lived. My father had a textile factory, and we were quite wealthy. In fact, we lived in a beautiful two-story brick house in the center of town. Then, one day, without warning, the tanks came in and with one blow everything was over. Finished.

"I am the only one in my entire family who survived. I went to a DP camp in Berlin after I was liberated from the concentration camp, and then after two years there, I was able to come to America. For years it tortured me that I did not have a single remembrance of my family, of my mother especially. We had been so close. But nothing was saved. Nothing was left. I didn't have so much as a piece of paper with my mother's handwriting on it.

"It kept bothering me until one day, about 15 years ago, I decided I would go back – back to my little shtetl to see if anything remained. You can imagine what a trip that was. There were so many memories on every street. There were memories, but that was all. The house was gone. The factory was gone. There was not even the slightest reminder that the Fogel family had ever existed in Yaroslov.

"I realized my trip had been a waste, and I was on my way back to the hotel to pack my bags, when I passed a small photo studio owned by a gentile from the neighborhood. I looked in the window as I was passing, and there, on display, was a portrait of my mother that had been painted when she was a young bride.

"How I felt then you would not believe. Not only to find something from my childhood, but for it to be a picture of my beloved mother! I was beside myself with joy; only I quickly came back to reality. I started thinking: How should I approach the shop owner? How much should I offer? What if the owner is an anti-Semite, sees that the picture means a lot to me, and refuses to sell it? I wasn't sure how to handle the situation. In the end, I decided to tell the truth.

"I went into the shop and told the shop owner the whole story straight out. How I was originally from Yaroslov, how I now lived in America. Why I had returned and that the picture in the window was of my mother.

"The proprietor listened intently and then, without saying a word, went over to the window where the picture hung, took it down and handed it to me. My hands were shaking as I held the precious painting. I wanted to take out my wallet, but the man shook his head and pushed my hand back. He didn't want any money for the painting, he said. It belonged to me. I thanked him and left before he could change his mind. You can well imagine how much having that picture has meant to me all these years.

"After you told me the story of that poor woman, it brought back the memory of this incident. I would appreciate it if you would allow me the privilege of doing the same."

He then took out a heavy plastic bag, put the Torah mantle inside, and handed it to me.

from "It Happened in Heaven" (

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